Me and the Tree.


“When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder, lions hunker down in tall grasses, and even elephant’s lumber after safety.” – Maya Angelou



Trees play an essential role in the formation of our environment and the survival of human life. Chris Maser once said “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” Story telling has been part of human nature for so long that no one has been able to put a date to the first recorded story. Through words and images, stories have formed a part of allowing one to experience euphoria and take some time to enter into a fantasy idea. In particular, telling stories of trees and sharing memories of trees, particularly city trees, that are significant to them and that have brought them joy. This blog aims to discuss the four different types of tree narratives outlined by Joanna Dean (2015). An example of a personal story and photograph will be provided for each narrative. Personal tree stories from three other people collected from photo elicitation interviews will also be provided.

A photo elicitation interview can be defined as an interview where the interviewer presents photographs to the interviewee. The interviewee is then encouraged to engage with the photographs and relate. The purpose of this is to promote discussion between the interviewer and the interviewee (Tinkler 2013:174). By providing photographs to the interviewee, it makes them more comfortable and open to sharing their thoughts and associations to the subject on the photograph. The interviewee is provided with something that has the ability to stimulus a thought or remind them of a memory, thus taking the attention and pressure off them (Tinkler 2013:174). Therefore, photo elicitation interviews are cherished as they raise conversations that generate useful data (Tinkler 2013:194).

Personal Narratives:

A Narrative of Service:


This is a story that involves a tree tending to a human need. When I think of my childhood, the fondest memory is of my brother an myself spending countless hours outdoors exploring our garden, picking flowers for our mom, enjoying the companionship of our dogs, and listening to the numerous bird calls. However, the most significant memory of my childhood is when my father and our gardener built a two story treehouse in the most magnificent tree in the back of our garden. My brother and I can tell endless stories of what we used to get up to. The many nights we spent cosied up on the top floor of the tree house, watching the stars and enjoying the freshness of the night breeze. We spent hours in this trees branches trying to see how high we could climb and how much of Johannesburg skyline we could determine. The childhood games from hide and seek and fort wars, all took place in the garden and in the comfort of our own childhood dream house. So above and beyond the fact that trees selflessly serve our society by providing valuable shade and purifying the air of carbonic acid gas (Dean 2015: 162). Trees provide a deeper meaning than survival, trees create an opportunity for human ecstasy.

Check out this link to see the 22 top benefits of trees! My favourite in relation to the above story is:

Trees are teachers and playmates

Whether as houses for children or creative and spiritual inspiration for adults, trees have provided the space for human retreat throughout the ages.

A Narrative of Power:


This involves a story about a tree having a symbolic or semiotic function. I have to relate this narrative of power to a strong belief of mine and my relation to the Tree of Life. The symbols of the tree of life are comprised of all the aspects of the tree itself and what those elements mean. You have the roots, the trunk, branches, leaves, and all types of fruit coming from the same tree. All of these parts of the tree represent the tree in a symbolic way.

The roots dig deep, the trunk establishes a foundation, the branches reach out for sustenance, the leaves collect strength, and the fruit gives of itself.

Take a look at the article: an in depth look at all the aspects the Tree of Life holds.

The Tree of Life allows me to base my idea of life and myself on the symbols of the tree. As a person I am grounded but I still need to ask for help and let others help me. I need to collect as much as life is willing to offer me and then I have a duty to give of myself.

*Oak Tree – The mighty Oak is a symbol of courage and power, legend has it that it is the most powerful of all trees, the Mighty Oak stands strong through all things.

A Narrative of Heritage:

This is a story that involves a tree reminding one of their history and traditions. It can also include a tree as a prominent community landmark. To this day, I am stilling living in the same house I grew up in. We are lucky enough to have a huge mulberry tree in the top of our garden which for many years was my brother and my favourite tree in our garden. Taking us back to our childhood, at the end of spring, my brother and I would start getting ready for silkworm season. We would decorate our respective shoe boxes and then pick the most voluptuous mulberry leaves for our silkworms to live and feed off of. As we have grown older, we have stopped this tradition of watching our silkworms transform but to this day, we still venture up into our garden and have numerous stories to tell and of course, still many delicious mulberries to snack on.

A story that I just couldn’t leave out, is a story about our pine cone tree, My brother and myself have a tradition that runs throughout the year. Every Sunday we go and collect all the pine cones that have fallen from our pine cone tree and store them in our downstairs cellar for when it is winter and time to light up a fire in our fireplace.

In terms of Dean (2015:164) speaking of trees as community landmarks, the Marula tree is regarded as a sacred tree in Africa. Respected for food source, magical qualities as a healing ingredient, to its virility/fertility properties, and the many uses of its bark, leaves, fruit, nut and kernels.

A Counter Narrative of the Unruly Tree:


This involves a story of a tree that has caused a person trouble. Perching itself against our front wall, a pine cone tree is the bearer of all our problems. The tree has grown to a size which is beyond our ability to control. The size of the roots of this tree is causing our front wall to crack and collapse. Furthermore, the pine cones that are produced on this tree, have a habit of falling onto our next door neighbour’s corrugated iron roof, causing a huge disturbance and a frightening noise that can make anyone shake in their shoes. Lastly, this pine cone tree has attracted the nuisance of a few Hadidas that sit in this tree a let out a number of bird calls, waking the household up at disorderly hours of the morning.

Check out this link for a few of the symbolic meanings attached to certain trees!


Interview 1: Heather (Gran)

The tree as a narrative of service

My Gran is a very well respected ‘green finger’. After her divorce, my gran said that gardening allowed her to feel a sense of escapism. Her favourite pastime is when she would prone her flowers and trees to perfection. She had no control of what was happening in her life but stated that she had control to make her garden look exactly how she wanted. Being able to walk out into her garden and find serenity sitting under one of her well-loved trees.

The tree as a narrative of power and status

In contrast to the above narrative, Heather, told a story about moving into an old age home where trees and the height of trees became restricted.  She felt it was unfair to keep them within a reasonable height of what the authority wanted but unfortunately she had no other option. Cutting the trees down to a constricted size symbolises human intervention. However, it is sad that an old woman makes a transition into an old age home and her love for gardening has to be monitored.

The tree as a narrative of heritage

Heather is at a well-lived aged of 78 and throughout her years of living has only brought about the realisation of how trees have been removed for construction purposes, but she firmly states that the increase in indigenous trees has multiplied drastically. Heather had an acacia tree in her back yard when she was still a young girl of six years old and says that today, she sees these trees surrounding the many open land areas of South Africa and even the increase in South Africa’s fight to preserve these indigenous trees. “This is one of South Africa’s most beautiful and useful trees. It is integrally part of our country’s history having been used for everything from raft-making to sewing needles and fencing for the houses of the royal Zulu women.”

The counter-narrative of the unruly tree

Heather’s first house was in a beautiful part of Pietermaritzburg on a plot of land that stretched further than the eye could see. Heather made it very clear that ‘in her day’, the ratio to houses and land was incomparable. Land, fauna, and flora was very dominant. Heather’s driveway was meters long and stretched from her garage to her front gate. However, the trees that were located next to the driveway caused a huge mess that took her hours to clean.

Interview 2: Jonathan

The tree as a narrative of service

Jonathan lived on a plot of land in Bryanston when he was a little boy. This when cattle still roamed the streets, and in fact the streets were just dust roads. He told me a story of when his brother and three cousins were playing cricket outside. Jonathan, being the youngest out of them, was instructed to fetch the cricket ball out of a snake hole. When greeted by a black mamba, Jonathan took comfort in climbing the closest, tallest tree that was in sight. And although the possibility of a snake being in the tree he found comfort in, at that moment, this tree served as a means to an end.

The tree as a narrative of power and status

Jonathan has an immense love for travel and now that he is situated in Johannesburg, he makes it a priority to plant as many trees as he can that represent the places he has been around the world. The wall that forms as boundary between himself and his neighbour is screened by bamboo. This bamboo that he planted, originated from Japan where it is believed to be able to attract health, wealth, happiness, and love. This is one of the many but significant messages Jonathan took out of his trip to Japan.

The tree as a narrative of heritage

One of Jonathan’s favourite places to travel to when he has had enough of Johannesburg is the North Coast. Since he was a tiny boy, his mother would take Jonathan and his brother to their home is Salt Rock. The journey would take a long few hours that for two little boys seemed like a lifetime but Jonathan would spend these hours looking out the window at all his surrounds. After numerous trips down to the coast, Jonathan soon realised that Banana trees would start appearing an hour away from where their house was situated. To this day, Jonathan still times himself every time he goes to visit Salt Rock.

 The counter-narrative of the unruly tree

When Jonathan saw my photograph of an unruly tree, the only negative story he could tell was about their acorn tree that was prominent to his childhood house in Bryanston. The acorn tree produced many acorns thick and fast. Of course to many boys, this was the perfect ammunition for a ‘play war’. Once again, Jonathan was the youngest and he was often target with these acorns evertime he left the comfort of his home. This soon became a very much hate-hate relationship between the acorn tree and poor Jonathan.

Interview 3: Kristin

The tree as a narrative of service

Kristin is eleven years old and I was interested to find out if a younger generation still held childhood stories or memories of outdoor playing and tree climbing. When asked about the narrative of service, Kristin told me a story of when she was 8 years old, and at school they would have two break times where all the children would go out to play on the provided playing equipment. Kristin and her group of friends became very fond of a large oak tree that not only provided shade from the blazing sun, but also formed as a connection between her friendship groups. The girls would always know where to meet when break started and was soon known coined ‘the friendship tree.’

The tree as a narrative of power and status

Kristin explained how her mother is an avid bonsai maker as well has being a very spiritual individual. Kristin has seen over the years how her mother has grown her bonsai empire and has even allocated a large part of the garden to the home of these bonsais. However, her mother is very calculating about the bonsais she chooses to make, making sure each bonsai has a symbolic meaning attached to it that she strongly believes and follows. Kristin says this has become a sanctuary for her and she often feels empowered when surrounded by trees that have such emotional healing powers.

Must read! all about Bonsai trees and their symbolism.

The tree as a narrative of heritage

Kristin and her family briefly made a move to Australia due to her father getting a promotion. Kristin explains that this move took a huge toll on her as she left family and friends and found it difficult to adapt to this new lifestyle. Kristin made it very clear that the found memory of the Kruger Park and the huge baobab trees and the branches that animals sprawl themselves over, is a memory she immediately associates South Africa and her home with.

Check out this website for more info on the Big Five trees!

The counter-narrative of the unruly tree

Basing this story on her new life in Australia, Kristin says she has found so many weird and wonderful animals in her garden that she is terrified of. Australia is infamous for its dangerous animals. So now, Kristin associates trees in Australia as being the home to many of the most dangerous animals in the world. Kristin once saw a Sydney Funnel Web Spider which is one of the top ten most dangerous animals in Australia.


This essay aims to create an awareness of the importance of trees in our lives and in our cities and urban environments. This essay also shows the wealth of information that can be generated through a photo elicitation interview. The photos helped the interviewees to restfully share their stories and memories. It is hoped that the awareness created through this blog post will encourage readers to also relate and reflect to the photographs provided and share their own narratives and experiences they’ve had with trees, with others. The more one stresses the significance of trees in our own lives and in general, the more people will start to appreciate and look after them.

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Sources Consulted:

Dean, J. 2015. The unruly tree: stories from the archives, in Urban forests, trees, and greenspace: a political ecology perspective, edited by LA Sandberg, A Bardekjian & S Butt. New York: Routledge:162-175.

Tinkler, P. 2013. Using photographs in social and historical research. London: SAGE.




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